Sylvia Lynch lives in East Tennessee and works as an assistant professor of education at Lincoln Memorial University. She has published three books of nonfiction, and her short fiction has appeared in The Lousiville Review, Kudzu, Nantahala Review, Motif 1: Writing by Ear, Motif 2: Come What May, Press 53 Open Anthology, and Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales. She was the winner of the 2008 Gurney Norman Prize for Fiction.
Stump and Lacey
Momma’s Aunt Lacy was married to the sorriest man who ever drew a breath. His name was Paul Dean Longmire, but everybody called him Stump. I don’t know why they called him Stump, and to tell you the truth, I don’t want to know why; it would probably mess me up for life. The pitiful part of the whole thing is that poor old Aunt Lacey knew he wasn’t worth killing. She carried a full catalog of his shortcomings in her head, and she took any opportunity to recite the whole list to anybody who’d listen. Like anybody who had ever laid eyes on him wouldn’t already know what a sorry excuse for a human being he was. People learned pretty quick not to walk up and say, “Why, hidy, Lacey. How’s Stump?” One time was all it took to teach you better than to ask after Stump Longmire.
The funny thing was how Aunt Lacey seemed to be completely blind to one of Stump’s worst shortcomings, one that occupied a major part of his time and attention. Or maybe she just feigned ignorance about it. It was a puzzlement to everybody how Lacey could know Stump Longmire inside and out like she did, and yet not have the faintest notion of what was going on when he would go missing for three or four hours each and every Thursday night, regular as clockwork.
Whenever Thursday rolled around, Aunt Lacey would show up at our house right about supper time. Every single Thursday night for two and a half years. It just started up one July when I was twelve years old and it kept on until, well, until she died. I always thought it was a shame that sorry excuse for a human she was married to outlived her. Made me wonder sometimes if the Good Lord might have made a mistake in that situation and took the wrong one; or maybe He was just like the rest of us and didn’t want to fool with Stump Longmire until He absolutely had to.
That first time Aunt Lacey came for a Thursday night visit we were just sitting down at the table for supper when we heard a car pull up in front of the house. Momma got all flustered because she had fried just enough pork chops for us. She jumped up and ran to the living room to look out the window. When she came back in the kitchen she had this funny look on her face, like she was sick or mad or something. She wedged her fist into her hip joint, looked at Daddy and said, “Lord have mercy. It’s Stump and Aunt Lacey.” A collective moan went up around the table. Momma studied those four pork chops like she was trying to figure out where she could hide them.
My sister LeighAnn, she was just five at the time, said, “Momma, are they going eat up all the meat?” LeighAnn was especially fond of pork chops and the thought of hers going to company caused her to get all tore up.
“Hush up,” Momma said. “Let me think a minute.”
Then we heard that old muffler rattle again and Daddy said, “Well, thank God. I believe they’re leaving.” The words were barely out of his mouth when we heard the screen door open and a squeaky little voice say, “Whoooo hooo?” We all froze like a bunch of statues, eyes glued to the pork chops. I swear, it seemed like that plate of pork chops just rose up off the table and spun around and around, right out in clear view of everybody.
Aunt Lacey scuffed through the door, a faded blue sweater hanging around her shoulders, her arms folded close to her waist, her elbows resting on her hands. Aunt Lacey always was a painfully thin little woman. I suspect old Stump rooted her out of the trough most of the time seeing as how he had a belly you can take shade under. She wore these cat-eyed brown glasses that set cockeyed on her nose and one of her eyes had a habit of wandering off to the side every now and then. It was hard sometimes to tell if she was looking at you or not.
That evening she just stood there in the doorway, that rogue eye of hers roaming around like it was trying to settle on something it could hang on to. I don’t know how long she’d have stood there if LeighAnn hadn’t twisted around in her chair and blurted out, “We ain’t got but four pork chops.” Momma looked like she wanted to pass out.
“Oh, honey, I’ve done eat,” Aunt Lacey said. “I had me a can of Viennas and some saltines right before I left the house. Now, you all go on with your supper and I’ll just go out here and sit on the porch until you get done.” She made no move to turn around and the silence was suffocating.
Momma finally stepped toward her and took hold of one of her bony elbows. “Now, don’t be silly, Aunt Lacey. You come over here and sit down. There’s plenty.” She shot a mean look at my sister. LeighAnn’s head sunk in between her shoulders like a turtle as she scooted down in her chair. Momma said, “Where’s Stump? Is he not coming in?” Her face looked like she had just bit down on something bitter as she pushed the words out of her mouth.
“Please, God, don’t let him come in,” I said inside my mind. The last time Stump was in our house was when he came to drop off some preserves Aunt Lacey sent to Momma for her birthday. The living room smelled kind of like buttermilk for a long time after he left. I remember Momma wouldn’t let us sit down or do anything in the general area where he was until she had washed everything that might have come in contact with him.
Aunt Lacey sat down in the chair Momma had pulled out for her. “Oh, no, honey, Stump’s not coming in or nothing. He had to leave. He just all of a sudden took a notion to go tubbing and he didn’t want me to stay by myself, so I told him I’d come over here till he got back. He’s got so he don’t want me to stay by myself, ever since my gall bladder operation. I told him I don’t reckon a gall bladder can grow back or anything, so he needn’t to worry so much about a relapse. ”
“What’s tubbing?” LeighAnn asked, as she forked her pork chop off the platter.
“I told you to hush,” Momma said.
“You just said hush about the pork chops. You didn’t say to hush about tubbing,” LeighAnn said.
“It’s a kind of fishing,” Daddy said. “Only you don’t use a pole. You use a tub and you kind of scoop up the fish. Now, eat, LeighAnn, and hush. Lacey, when did Stump take up tubbing?”
“Well, he just started it as far as I know,” Aunt Lacey said. She crossed her matchstick legs and pulled her shirtwaist dress tight down over her knees. “At least he did clean up to go. Lord, he had that hair all slicked back and even put on clean drawers. I asked him did he think them fish would jump in that tub better if he dressed up for them. ‘I was just needing to scrape off some dirt. That’s all.’ That was what he said. You know Stump. He has some funny ideas sometimes.” Momma and Daddy shot odd looks at each other over their plates that I couldn’t quite interpret.
Aunt Lacey stayed that night until just after dusk. She sat in that chair beside the table and talked the whole time we ate supper and even while Momma did the dishes. I swear, I don’t think she hardly took a breath. Even though Momma looked like she was listening, I know her nerves had to be jangled because when we heard that rattling muffler out front, she yelled out way too loud, “There’s Stump!” Aunt Lacy jumped and I heard Daddy say, “Well Lord have mercy” from his chair in the living room. Momma threw her dishrag in the sink and walked Aunt Lacey to the living room and reached around her to push open the screen door. “You come back, now, Aunt Lacey,” she said, “and tell Stump… well, you tell Stump hidy for us.”
Daddy stood behind Momma and they didn’t say a word as they watched Aunt Lacy get in the car. They looked out the screen door until the car pulled out and they stayed there for a few minutes like they wanted to be sure Stump didn’t turn back around. After a while Daddy said, “Tubbing my hind end.” Momma gouged him with her elbow and went back to the kitchen.
The following Thursday night, we heard that old car of Stump’s again, just as we were sitting down at the table. “Oh, well, Lord have mercy,” Momma said. Daddy looked like he wanted to say something but he just kept looking at Momma across the table, licking his lips and working his mouth, but with no words coming out.
“Well,” LeighAnn said, “At least they’s plenty enough soup beans.”
That night Aunt Lacey showed Momma a “new” pocketbook Stump had bought her. It was all scuffed up and the gold latch on the top was turning green. When Aunt Lacey showed it to me, I looked up at Momma and her eyebrows pinched together, so I didn’t say anything except, “Well.” Momma tried and tried to get Aunt Lacey to eat some beans but she wouldn’t. She just sat there and talked and talked, her funny eye darting around to each of us, until Stump pulled up in front of the house. I remember we got two full retellings of her gallbladder operation that night - a subject that doesn’t fit too well when you’re trying to eat beans.
Anyway, that’s how it started and it kept up all that time, rain or shine. Then came that one Thursday night when she didn’t show up. Momma kept jumping up from the table, running in the living room, and peering out through the screen door. “Lord have mercy. Sit down and eat. She’ll be here when she gets here,” Daddy said. “It ain’t like she can’t find her way to the kitchen by now.”
But Aunt Lacey never did come that night. The next morning Preacher Gibson called Momma on the phone and told her Aunt Lacey had died. He said Stump found her Thursday morning, her head laid over on the table like she was just taking a nap, except she had her face laid right on her plate. He said her toast and molasses was stuck right to her cheek. I felt really bad because I just couldn’t keep myself from wondering if her funny eye was open or closed.
Aunt Lacey’s funeral was on Sunday afternoon in the chapel at Risner’s Funeral Home – same place Papaw Winston’s was. I sure always liked those colored windows they had. The sun was hitting them just right that day and I passed the time while the preacher was hollering and going on, looking at the little rainbows on my hands. There weren’t very many people there, nowhere near as many as when Papaw lay a corpse. There were some pretty flowers, though, and I was glad to see it because Momma said Aunt Lacey always liked flowers. It seemed right she finally got something she liked that was brand new.
We sat on the second row, right behind Stump and a thin blonde woman who wore a flat hat that was the same color as her dress. It had a big button right on the top of it, which seemed like a waste of a good button to me. She sure took care of Stump all during the funeral, patting his hand and asking him if he was okay and everything. Stump smelled okay, as far as I could tell, and his chubby face was lacking its usual tobacco spit-colored whiskers. When it come time for the final viewing, the lady didn’t go up front with the rest of us to look at Aunt Lacey’s shriveled face laying on that little white pillow. She just perched there on the pew, picking little threads off her skirt tail and working hard to look sad. She kept her eyebrows all drawn up crooked and her lips smashed tight together.
Later, as we were leaving the graveyard, I asked Momma where we were going to eat dinner and she said, kind of hateful, “At home. Now hush up and get in the car.” I was really surprised we weren’t going to Stump’s to help eat up the funeral food, especially since Aunt Lacey was family and all. I wondered if maybe people hadn’t brought enough food to the house. And maybe that blonde woman couldn’t cook or something. But it looked to me like there should have been some kind of arrangement in place to feed all the funeral people after it was over. I mean, you’d think with all that tubbing Stump had been doing lately, there should have at least been plenty fish to go around.